No stereo is big enough to contain the voice of JJ Heller. It is not as if this California native has a belting melisma that would carry her voice over high soaring notes, the kind that would win you votes on American Idol or X Factor. Rather, her voice is pretty subdued and fragile calling to mind Sara Groves or Alison Krauss or Jewel yet it is powerful enough to rattle the fences of the heart. Heller's emotional spectrum is just vastly tremendous. One moment she can be cracking with brittle vulnerability and on the next she can be blasting with passionate intensity. Add to that Heller and her hubby Dave Heller are first class storytellers. Taking pages out of the diaries of everyday life, they write intriguing narratives about the struggles of faith and life with such palatability that one can't help but ask: 'Did she write this song about me?" Though God/Jesus is seldom mentioned, just like the Biblical book of Esther, God is everywhere in these 10 tracks. One can trace, in the words of Adam Smith, "the invisible hand of God" moving through these songs sometimes through the generic "you" or "he" and also through the intricate characters and plotline of the songs. Subtle yet the providence of God is at the end of the day powerful. "Loved" is Heller's 8th full length album (if one excludes 2005's "Collection of Thoughts" EP). Following in the same tenor set by 2011's "Deeper," this is a folky-pop effort with a tingle of country and soft rock élan.
Primed to cause a tear to drop from one's eye is the lead single and the album's penultimate track "Who You Are." Told from the vantage of a 41 year-old mother who longed for the baby she never had and a father who just received news that his child had just died via a car accident, Heller questions God why such tragedies happen. Only to come to this resolve: "Sometimes I don't know/Don't know what you are doing/But I know why you are." This heart wrenching track ranks high up there with Laura Story's "Blessings" and Natalie Grant's "Held." "Who You Are" is followed by another ballad "I Believe" a warm affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ which is segueing at the end with the hymn "I'd Rather Have Jesus." While "Who You Are" and "I Believe" have a fuller sound, the title cut "Loved" is a simple folk piece with a coffee-house flair. The gentle strumming of the acoustic guitar, the soothing sound of a choir and a sensitive bevy of strings accompany Heller as she tells an abused child that she is still "loved" despite all the atrocities.
No one can ever accuse of Heller to be just a mere folk singer. On "For You" she incorporates onto this midtempo fresh sounding electronic beats yet never turning the song mechanical. Rather, it's a lively waltzy ode of love and surrender to Jesus (though he is only referred to as "you"). "If You Fall" again is different. Imbued with a haunting ethereal feel, "If You Fall" is such a great song about sacrificial friendship that one can't help but want to be Heller's friend. Fans who have come to appreciate Heller's use of metaphors (e.g., "Boat Song") will absolutely love "Create in Me." Comparing our hearts like an empty Cathedral, the pop sounding "Create in Me" is a creative prayer to God to come decorate our lives with ornaments of his grace. This is arguably one of Heller's most creative songs to date-her use of language here is just nonpareil.
Somehow calling to mind Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" especially at the intro is "Stay." Heller turns the table around by surrounding "Stay" with a relaxing jazzy languid feel. Yet, not everything works: "Better Things" and "Redemption" are just your average popish numbers sugar coated with radio friendly drum beats and keyboard riffs. Nevertheless, Heller's "Loved" is force to be reckon with. Don't let her soft and tender vocals fool you. Brimming under her voice are nuances of vibrant emotions strong enough to cause the strongest of hearts to crumple. Be careful, Heller is bigger than you think.